Education Week reports on a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in the case G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools (court pdf; archive pdf) concerning the privacy of students’ mobile phones:
In a novel decision, a federal appeals court has ruled that a Kentucky school administrator’s search of text messages on a student’s cellphone was unreasonable and violated the student’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled 2-1 on the legality of the cellphone search. It ruled unanimously that the student was denied due process when the district expelled him without a hearing for repeated disciplinary infractions. […]
In September 2009, G.C. was seen texting on his cellphone in class, a violation of school rules. The teacher turned over the phone to another assistant principal, who read four of G.C.’s text messages on the phone. The assistant principal later testified that she knew of the student’s discipline issues and was looking “to see if there was an issue with which I could help him so that he would not do something harmful to himself or someone else.”
Meanwhile, the principal considered the cellphone use in school a last disciplinary straw and revoked G.C.’s privilege to attend school in Owensboro as an out-of-district student. G.C. and his parents sued the district and various officials, alleging an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment and a violation of due process of law under the 14th Amendment, among other claims.
They lost in a federal district court. But in a March 28 ruling in G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools, the 6th Circuit court panel ruled for the student on the due process and Fourth Amendment claims. […]
On the cellphone search, the court said G.C. conceded that the earlier search of his phone, when an assistant principal checked for evidence that the student was contemplating suicide, was reasonable under the circumstances.
But the September 2009 search after G.C. was caught texting in class was not justified at its inception, the court said, relying on the test for school searches of students under the 1985 Supreme Court decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O. […]
“A search is justified at its inception if there is reasonable suspicion that a search will uncover evidence of further wrongdoing or of injury to the student or another,” the 6th Circuit court said. “Not all infractions involving cellphones will present such indications. Moreover, even assuming that a search of the phone were justified, the scope of the search must be tailored to the nature of the infraction and must be related to the objectives of the search.”
“Under our two-part test, using a cellphone on school grounds does not automatically trigger an essentially unlimited right enabling a school official to search any content stored on the phone that is not related either substantively or temporally to the infraction,” the court added.